In the spring of 1954, John Madden’s senior year on the Jefferson High School baseball team, he was catching in a big game against rival Sequoia High School of Redwood City. John Robinson didn’t have a game that day, so he came by to watch and support his pal.
“Support” turned out to be strictly a relative term.
A Sequoia batter struck out, and when the ball went into the dirt, Madden got his big body in front of the ball, and it trickled a few feet in front of home plate. Madden could have zipped the ball quickly to first base to get the out, but he got a little too cute.
“I grabbed the ball, but I thought, Hey, let him go, make him run, then whoom, I’ll throw him out,” Madden recalled.
Well whoom, he didn’t throw him out. The ball sailed way over the first baseman’s head, rolled way down the right-field line, and by the time the right fielder had tracked it down, the batter who had struck out a few seconds earlier was rounding third and crossing home plate.
And there was John Robinson in the bleachers behind home plate, and his was the only voice that Madden could hear: “Hey, you threw a home run! You threw a home run!”
This was typical of the most basic, unforgiving law of the Madden’s Lot tribe. If you screw up, you will take s–t for it. Yet as embarrassing as that moment might have been, Madden was becoming good enough to draw interest from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox farm systems, who both offered him a minor league contract worth $75 per month. It was also further evidence that Madden might have been right about one thing: he wasn’t thinking about becoming a coach that early in his life. He believed he was a player and that there was going to be somewhere else for him to play after high school.
Baseball was fun, and the minor league offers from the Yankees and Red Sox were quite flattering, but Madden was no can’t-miss bonus baby. Besides, deep down in his heart, Madden knew he was a football player, plain and simple. He had grown to 6’4″ and was starting to fill out to more than 200 pounds. He was a big, thick-chested youngster and a star on both sides of the line. His pal Robinson had also become an outstanding player, earning a football scholarship to the University of Oregon to catch passes for the Ducks.
Madden initially stayed closer to home, playing one season a few miles down the road from Daly City at the College of San Mateo before following Robinson to Oregon. Once they were reunited in Eugene, Madden and Robinson picked up where they left off when they were running the streets of Daly City.
It was nearly 1:00 in the morning, and as was typically the case back in 1955, the gentle young coeds of the University of Oregon had a midnight curfew and were already in their dorms. But out in front of the frat houses on fraternity row, there was a commotion brewing. On the steps of the original Sigma Chi house at 13th and Adler streets in the heart of campus, Madden, Robinson, and Jim Bailey, a star miler on the Oregon track team from Australia, were among a crowd of frat boys and jocks talking trash into the wee hours of the morning. Bailey was a stud. A year later he would not only make the Australian Olympic team, but on May 5, 1956, in the Los Angeles Coliseum, he would become the first man in history to break the four-minute mile on American soil.
At some point during the night, the conversation got around to running. As the men sat there—probably with more than a few beers consumed—logic got a little fuzzy. Everyone on campus knew how good Bailey was, and everyone knew how big Madden was. For some reason, that led Madden to a remarkable statement. “I said I could run faster at a short distance than a world-class miler could,” Madden says. “And now [Robinson] is out there egging me on and egging him on, and now everyone started wanting to lay down bets.”
As a result of their Daly City childhoods, Robinson and Madden had the hearts of hustlers. “I think I was the pimp on this one,” Robinson laughs. “I knew that because John was big, a lot of people didn’t think he could run fast. Well, I grew up with him, and I knew he was a lot faster than he looked, so I start yelling, ‘Hey, I bet John can beat Bailey in a race! I bet he can take him!’”
The hook was properly baited, and as someone stepped off 60 yards down the middle of 13th Street, there were as many as 200 young male students lining 13th Street from Adler toward Kincaid, and John Robinson was holding all of their money. He organized the betting, taking on all comers for him and his buddy Madden. There was only one small problem: Robinson had taken in more than twice as much money as either he or Madden had in their pockets. If Madden lost, they didn’t have enough to cover their potential losses. “We didn’t have any money,” Madden says, laughing. “But John’s telling everyone he can cover all these bets for me and him, and now it was like [retired pro golfer] Lee Trevino used to say: ‘Pressure is trying to win a big bet and you’re flat broke.’”
The pressure apparently didn’t faze Madden. As the frat boys and jocks lined up near the finish line, the race went off. Side by side, the future Olympian versus the future NFL Hall of Fame coach. “And John smoked him,” Robinson says, smiling like a Cheshire cat. “And we won a fortune. Maybe 10 or 12 bucks apiece!”